Skip to main content

On The Ender's Game Set, Going Into Battle School And In Zero Gravity

Have I told you about the time I shook Harrison Ford's hand?

I didn't get into the business of professional geekery to meet my childhood idols. I do this because I love to be moved by great stories, great performances and great direction. And when I met Ford on the set of Ender's Game, I got to combine the two-- wandering through the set was one big geeky dream come true even before Ford, who plays the military leader Colonel Graff, came over to say hello. As a child of the 80s and a geek who's never been particularly cool by conventional or unconventional standards, Harrison Ford is about as iconic as it gets, and I spent the encounter trying to remember to breathe and act professional.

Ford wasn't up for speaking on the record to the members of the press who were on set that day, but he was very polite and extremely soft-spoken, So much so that you could have heard a pin drop in the room during our brief chat. My interactions with the man consisted mainly of a hand-shake, whatever attempt at eye contact I was able to make, and a very calm, all-too-brief discussion about the movie, before he had to return to set. And then I exhaled.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. Let's go back to where we left off in Part 1, visiting the Battle School led by Ford's character Graff, who's tasked with looking after the gifted children who've been selected to attend a space-set Battle School to train for the anticipated second war against an alien race called the Formics. Graff forms a bond with the story's protagonist, Ender Wiggin (Asa Butterfield), an especially gifted and compassionate child Graff believes could be the one to lead humanity to victory.

We didn't exactly get to enroll in Battle School, but it felt like it when it came time for lunch, sitting down at our long cafeteria table just as all the kids from the film were sitting down at theirs. All of them were dressed in their costumes - blue cotton-looking jumpsuits, I believe - and wearing smocks to keep them from getting dirty while they ate. One of the kids forgot his smock and when someone came over to get him into one, he quickly apologized for starting to eat without it, noting that he forgot he was wearing it because the costume’s so comfortable. From what the kids had to say about the costumes, this probably wouldn't have happened if they were wearing the flash suits, as it sounds like those were pretty uncomfortable to wear.

The flash suits are the outfits the kids wear when they're in the Zero Gravity Battle Room. In the book the Battle Room is where the various armies face off by shooting each other with harmless flash guns that freeze their suits, rendering them paralyzed within the game, leaving them to float around in zero gravity. Butterfield was polite in describing the uncomfortable suits, saying, "They’re not really comfortable, actually. And the flash suits... they look incredible, but really they’re quite, well, they’re comfortable to a limit. For the first 15 minutes you’re wearing them, they’re cool, but then they get hot."

zero gravity

That brings us to the point of the set visit when we were taken into the trailer where the kids have "school" while they're on set. And not Battle School-school but actual school, since they're all minors and need to be educated, even when making a major motion picture. We used that area to sit with the cast (Asa Butterfield, Aramis Knight, Conor Carroll, Moises Arias, Khylin Rhambo, Suraj Partha, Hailee Steinfeld and Nonso Anonzie) and director Gavin Hood to discuss the film. One of the first topics discussed was preparing for the Zero Gravity scenes. Apparently, an astronaut spoke to the kids about what it's like to move around in zero gravity during the first week of filming. According to Butterfield, "He showed us lots of videos about what zero G does to your body and sort of the way to move in it, because in a lot of the films, they make zero G look like you need to move in slow motion and he said you can do whatever you want in it. The reason everyone moves slowly is so when they let go, it doesn’t spin off somewhere."

Later on that day, we got to speak with stunt coordinator Garrett Warren, who talked about about doing the zero gravity scenes in a bit more detail, and working with the people from Cirque du Soleil to design them. Part of that involved going wireless:

You know, more important than anything was the fact that the rigs that we put forward, were going to be rigs that the actors could use to perform weightlessness in and of it, by themselves, without someone touching them, or even wires interfering with their extremities. So, a lot of the times, when people are doing weightless work, you’re in a harness and wires and you’re constricted by the wires that are by the side of your body. I wish I could have a rig and show you guys. But, for the most part, people have to get it to tilt forward or tilt back. So, of course, we were going to get rid of that by using the different apparatus and get rid of the wires altogether. And already we were experimenting with this gymnastics rig, this spotting belt that people use in gymnastics. I don’t know if you guys have ever seen it. It’s what they teach people how to throw spins on a trampoline with, without killing themselves. But what happens is, they’re not designed to carry a weight. They’re designed to spot you. It’s a spotting belt basically.However, we went to the Cirque people and said, "Can you show us how to beef this up?" And, in fact, they had already had an idea, a prototype, that they were using. So we beefed it up and made it this really thick metal ring and then we took that ring and we were either able to connect by wires or we connected it by what we call a lollipop arm. And the lollipop arm is what really was inventive and innovative for the zero G world. All of you could float. All of you, no matter what your size, your height, your weight, or your experience, can absolutely float, spin, twist, do whatever you want to do. In fact, that’s what made it brilliant, because all the kids were able to do all of the work themselves without anybody touching them. And if you wanted to do this and stay here and move you could, without moving anywhere, but if you touched something, you actually would float away.

I wish I could tell you that this is the part where they took us somewhere and let us float around in zero gravity. Alas, that was only in my imagination. But hearing Warren discuss the stunts, it does sound like these kids got to do some cool stuff for this movie, and everything we've seen in the trailer indicates that the efforts paid off. Of course, wires were necessary for some things, and it sounds like that got really complicated at times:

We created, we erected a cage above everyone. We made them marionettes. We literally made a marionette cage above 13 people and were able to go like this, and move people like they were little puppets and so forth, in this world, and be able to grab each other. And so, the fun thing was that they’re all in and of themselves controlled by wires, but they’re all controlled within one big, huge cage, which was great.It was awesome. It was awesome. I can’t tell you how much fun it was. And I’m really proud of it and I have to admit that I’m very fortunate to have been given the freedom that I did by the producers as well as Gavin. Gavin was amazed when it came to all of this stuff and you know, he says, "Go for it. Let’s see what you can do." He didn’t just shut us down. He said, let’s see what it’s like to do it for real. He didn’t want it to be CG anymore and he didn’t want it to be stunt people either. As much as we had Cirque performers, their job was to teach people rather than to do it for them.

You can take a look at some behind-the-scenes footage from the zero gravity room here.

Ender’s game suit

Most of the kids got to attend space camp to learn more about what it would be like in space and working in a zero-gravity environment. There were also team building exercises. From what the kids say, it was a bonding experience for them, as they got to know each other better before the movie started shooting. They also did some military-like things there, which also ties into the setting of the film, as battle school is a military environment.

Director Gavin Hood talked to us a bit about his experience adapting the book and directing the film. Hood told us that he grew up in South Africa and hadn't actually read the book until his agent sent it to him. He says he connected with it, having been drafted when he was a teenager and going through his own bonding experience in a military environment. "I think the themes that are great in this book about friendship, identity, when placed under pressure and in an institution that encourages sometimes your more aggressive side and rewards that...all of those strange, powerful themes in Ender’s Game," Hood said, going on to add:

I think that’s why the book is prescribed in the marines, the marine officers training academy here in America. And I think because of the themes of leadership and what makes a good leader and ways of leading, all of these are great themes in the book. So, I’m reading this book and I’m going, wait a minute...I’m connecting with this book, you know, that’s written about a kid that’s 50 years in the future. But I think that those essential, mythic, coming of age stories are timeless and universal and in some ways we all go through this feeling of being the outsider, of finding our place. I just think there are many, many ways to connect with Ender’s Game and I think that’s why it’s so popular. It’s a feeling of being misunderstood and in an environment that you’re not quite sure what to do, whether it be going to the military or a new school or another country or whatever.

Later on in the discussion, Hood spoke about doing the film independently and an encounter with a major studio, which he refused to name, and an executive who looked at the script, probably not having read the book, and questioned the ending. I'm going to be vague here in relaying this story, for those who haven't read the book, but from what Hood said, this executive suggested an ending with a much more mainstream (generic-sounding) appeal, which pretty much missed the whole (or at least, a major) point of the story. Suffice it to say, Hood was relieved when Linda McDonough said flat out, "Well, we're not doing it here. They don't get it at all."

Hood went on to talk about the challenges of adapting a book to film:

When you adapt a book, it’s always very stressful in many ways, because the book has the benefit of the author’s narration, if you will, that third person whose telling you what’s going on inside this young man’s head. We don’t have that, unless you do a lot of voice over, which is usually hokey. So, you’re trying to find ways to get the spirit of the book, in another medium, and the example I like to give is to say, if I take a photograph of you and I ask somebody else to make a sculpture of you and somebody else does an oil painting, you don’t ask why is that oil painting not the same as the sculpture, because that’s an oil painting and that’s a sculpture. You ask, does each of these art forms capture the spirit of the subject it was trying to capture.So, our job in this movie, and I think this young man and all of these guys are doing an amazing job of capturing what, at least, the way the book hit me and Linda and all of us, of capturing the spirit in the medium we’re now working in. Can we be true to the spirit of the book, even though we’re having to use totally different tools, visual tools, acting, special effects, to tell a story that was told in a novel form. If we capture that spirit, which is really what I tried to do, the same thing when I did Tsotsi. I made a lot of changes to help us express that spirit of Tsotsi in a different medium. And that’s what we were trying to do here and I think everybody in this room, their heart’s really been in it

Earlier, Linda told us that Hood's Tsotsi was a big factor in the decision making. "Because the story is equally as important in its emotional content as it is in its spectacle," she explained. "And as it was something we knew would only work if we had the right person connecting to it emotionally."

Battle school

Going back to talks about getting the movie right, some changes did need to be made to adjust the story for the big screen. Fans of the book will have surely noticed that Asa Butterfield and the other kids playing the Battle School soldiers are a bit older than they were in Card's story. Hood talked about making adjustments to the ages and the span of time that takes place throughout the story for the sake of the film. Rather than spanning years in the book, the timeline was compressed to about a year in order to allow one actor to play the role. So we're seeing an older version of the character.

Fans will also have to do without some of the story involving Ender's siblings Peter (Jimmy 'Jax' Pinchak) and Valentine (Abigail Breslin) , neither of whom attend Battle School in the book or the movie. In the book, their story involves actively participating in the future's version of the internet, hiding behind fake names, the two children have a drastic impact on the political climate on earth while Ender is off preparing for the war. While we know Peter and Valentine are in the film, Hood says their story has been trimmed:

The other thing is that there are many incidents, there is a lot more story in the book with Peter and Valentine that regretfully had to be trimmed considerably. So, we said, it’s Ender’s Game. We’re going to tell the story... One of the ways it helped me, actually, was to say, "Ok. I’m going to tell you a story called Ender’s Game about Ender. I can’t possibly do the entire book. It would be 13 episodes. Let me focus on his story line, so this poor young man or not so unfortunate young man, is in 90% of the scenes in the movie. It’s his journey and his encounters with Valentine and Peter, as in the book, are in the movie, but the encounters between Valentine and Peter that exclude him, there’s only actually, I can tell you, one scene between the two of them that Ender’s not a part of. So, those were areas we had to change or, if you like, be streamlined.

At one point during the discussion with the cast, someone asked Aramis Knight about his role as Bean, one of Ender's most loyal allies. From a book perspective, Ender's Game is really only an introduction to who Bean is as a character. Orson Scott Card wrote a follow-up to Ender's Game called Ender's Shadow, which tells the story of Ender's Game through Bean's perspective, giving us an alternate look at how things really happened. If you haven't read it, it's well worth a look, particularly because there's so much more to Bean's mindset than he lets on. Unlike Ender, who grew up in a household with two parents and two siblings, Bean wasn't raised in a family environment. He had it rough, and it affects who he is in the story. Knight spoke about that and how tough it was to portray a character who's tougher than he is.

I mean, I find Bean such a tough character to really grapple, because he has had a tough childhood as probably all of you know. And in this story, I mean, in Ender’s Game, I really needed to take that into perspective in terms of how I treat them and conduct myself in the battle room and all that and it’s tough, because obviously, I had a perfect childhood. I’m a little softy inside, but Bean is different. So, he’s tough, but I love being him.

For Moises Arias, it was less about being tough as it was about being mean for the role of Bonzo, one of Ender's rivals in the story. "There’s no happy moment for Bonzo," Arias told us. "He’s just serious the whole time, but I think, especially when Ender comes in, he just wants to be the bigger guy, even though I’m six inches shorter. You don’t really see that in that book, but I guess I’m bringing the Napoleon to the character…" Arias went on to compare Ender and Bonzo in the way the two characters attempt to lead, saying, "I really feel how it shows the different type of leadership that is in the book and involved in the book of how Ender will actually listen to his comrades and find a better way when Bonzo would just go through anybody and everybody just to win."

Of course, playing mean for Arias is just an act. The other kids agree that he's the nicest person and the funniest among them.

One of the things fans are likely anticipating the most out of this adaptation is how the zero gravity scenes look. From what the cast says, it was challenging but they had fun working on the battle room scenes, some of which involve the characters floating through zero gravity in tight formations. Hailee Steinfeld, who plays Petra in the film spoke about a kind of "zipline thing" that they used for some scenes. "So we have a bunch of different rigs," she explained. "As you can imagine. And one of them was kind of a zipline, when we all jump out and it was kind of complicated trying to figure out how we could all get out there at the same time and the first time we did it, I was behind Khylin and you can tell this…" Steinfeld turned to Kyhlin Rhambo, who plays Dink Meeker in the film. "Yeah, so I’m like, 'I’m about to go as hard as I possibly can. This is going to be amazing. Just watch this.' So, I run my hardest and I jump out and end up upside down and I flipped and she rammed into me. It’s fun, but that was like, that was amazing. I felt like a little kindergartner on a roller coaster. It was super cool."

Acting on wires and in harnesses required a fair bit of concentration and multi-tasking, and coordination as they have to freeze their bodies when they're shot in the flash suits. From what Aramis Knight told us, it sounds like Harrison Ford had no trouble with this.

When we all tried the wires, it was really hard and I learned just the other day from doing a scene that Harrison Ford was going to have to be on the wires ad I was kind of excited to watch because I didn’t know what would happen. I just wanted to see this legendary actor on the wires. So, when we were on that scene and just watching him, I thought for sure he was going to need some practice and he just got it.

Because Harrison Ford is awesome. I didn't need to travel all the way to New Orleans to confirm that, but it was confirmed nonetheless.

Ender's Game arrives in theaters November 1.